The grime-blackened blocks of stone of which Hinsley Hall in Leeds is built make it a forbidding, even grim, place to approach for the first time. Once through the door, however, it is a place of warmth and cheer, with a well-attended morning Mass. Judge not the book by the cover; judge not by appearances but with right judgment (John7:24).
The occasion was the national conference of diocesan financial secretaries, an event held either side of last night, at which I was privileged to inflict upon them some penitential spiritual input. It sounds like the sort of dry, dusty, arid affair one would avoid with some effort, a grey gathering of ecclesiastical apparatchiks.
Far from it, let it be known. Gathered there was a diverse and committed group of people, a mix of clerics and laity, male and female, who have embraced a crucial yet undervalued of role in the life of the Church. It was heartening to hear them in discussions speak of the mission of the Church, especially the need for renewed and increased evangelization.
Few seem to recognise it but the Church has never seen its administrators as mere bureaucrats, or administration as a sort of necessary evil. In its earliest infancy the Church began to suffer from a deficiency in administration, a failure to keep up with its rapid expansion, an expansion beyond its Jewish nursery and into the world of the gentiles. In the 30s AD, we read in Acts 6, the gentile-born widows were receiving less than the jewish-born, and some dissension arose as a result. The apostles, burdened enough already with evangelization and worship, laid hands on seven men to make them deacons, who task was to ensure the fair distribution, or diakonia, of the Church’s expenditure. This first formally-instituted administrators in the Church revealed administration to be a ministry, one sacramentalized by the apostles. It was now a munus in the Church, both a service and a gift.
Church administration was not long to remain solely the preserve of an ordained ministry. About 20 years later St Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, lists several ecclesial roles “appointed by God”, one of which is “administering” (12:28). Administration was not to be restricted to the ordained ministry of deacon. A non-sacramentalized but nevertheless divinely appointed munus of administration is recognized by Paul as being distinct from the diakonia of the deacon. This distinction is apparent in his use of another word, kybernesis, for this administrative role.
What it is important to note is that since such a role is “divinely-appointed” it must by divinely assisted, it must carry its own grace of office. God lays upon us no duty without offering also a grace to go with it. It is not sacramentalized munus of deacon, but an ecclesial munus fulfilled outside the ranks of the ordained, and receiving a grace which, while not sacramental, is still clearly ecclesial.
So what? The point is that many of us are apt to be a little scornful of our church administrators. In some dioceses not so long ago there was a disconcertingly pronounced growth in administration and bureaucracy, a fact not lost on the diocesan flock which was often being asked to donate even more in diocesan funding initiatives. To a more skeptical eye, it looked as if the bureaucracy was seeking more money to perpetuate itself rather than further the mission of the Church.
Maybe so, then, but now the picture looks different. What I saw in Leeds was a group of people exercising their ecclesial munus of administration in trying circumstances, attempting to foster a flourishing Church in light of decreasing resources and increasing demands. So rather than dismiss our ecclesiastical administrators as members of the secular tribe of bureaucrat, justice bids us recognize them as exercising a divinely-appointed role of stewardship without which the Church cannot flourish in her mission. Just as they will have to render an account of their stewardship to God, so too they receive from God a grace proper to their office.
I suspect we mostly do not hold our church administrators in high regard. Theirs is a thankless task. Parish secretaries, for example, have been caricatured at the highest level as “disciples of satan“. A clumsy rhetorical flourish this may be, but it does expose a wider disdain for those who must consort with mundane materiality for the sake of the Church’s spiritual mission.
Perhaps we might spare for our ecclesial administrators—parochial, diocesan, curial—a prayer of thanks, and a prayer that they will not be lacking in the grace of their office that they might feed the people of God from its overstretched supply of loaves and fishes.